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When I was asked by David Meara to speak to you this morning, I called in at the National Gallery looking for a postcard of a subject suitable for Lent. Other than the Bosch, Mocking Of Christ that I have talked about before, there was nothing, not one postcard of the many, many Passion subjects hanging on their walls. 1 realised that they would not be bought by people who wanted to say 'this reminded me of you' or 'wish you were here' on the back. So I walked on down the Strand and found, in the Courtauld Institute, a postcard of one of the best pictures in the world of the dawn of the Flemish school, Robert Campin's Entombment in the Seilern Collection. I apologise for the difficulty in making out the detail of what I am going to say, but it is a fault you can repair. The original is on show literally down the road, in room 6 on the first floor, and there is a lift. The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House is open from 10-6 every day of the year except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. So you could walk down after lunch. It is a picture that would repay any amount of close study.
Practically nothing is known about the artist, except that he was working in Tournai from 1406 is probably the author of pictures sometimes attributed to the Master of Flemalle and he may have been the master of the more famous Roger van der Weyden, who was slightly younger than the two van Eyck's.
Nothing whatever is known about the kneeling donor, so we are free to learn what we can from the picture itself. It is quite a small triptych, standing 60cm high, so it could have been displayed on a smallish table, or a ledge above a prie dieu. Although it was probably bequeathed to the donor's chantry chapel in his local church, I am sure it was painted to stand in his private oratory attached to his bedroom. In fact, he was not a donor at all, for he gave it to himself, and his portrait, which is obviously true to life and on the same scale as the holy figures, was there, like a candle, to continue his supplications while he was busy elsewhere. This is where he wanted to be, and how he wished to be remembered.
Would you mind spoiling your postcard, as I have spoilt mine, by bending it along the joints of the original hinges? There isn't anything interesting on the back. It is just a grey gesso nowadays though his coat of arms or his emblem may have been rubbed off. Triptychs have many advantages. A practical one is that they are free standing. They can be closed for travel. Some, on the exterior, carry secondary, usually graver, subject matter, specially suitable for Lent, when they would be shut, as all the images in the churches would be veiled, until the splendours of Easter. Our young friend appears to have thought he might be allowed to continue to gaze at this scene during Lent and Passion tide. If you were to light a candle on the shelf within the arms of the triptych, the gold background would spring to flickering life.
Like Massaccio's Carmine Madonna in the National Gallery, of only a few years later, this is one of the last pictures from a major centre with a gold background. Fascination with a new-found realism is about to exchange this luxuriant representation of the light of eternity for the actual sky. In this instance the gold leaf is applied over a thick gesso, which in the centre panel and the left hand wing is stamped with a trail of the vine. This gives way in the third panel to flowers.
This picture can be read like a book. We start in the 'brown orchard' of the crosses on the desolate and barren hill of Calvary. The thieves are dead, and the body of Christ has been taken away. At least the pain is over. We follow down a winding track between wattle fences and at the bottom we go through an entrance into a watered garden. At that entrance we find a little white dog, a treasured pet, far too small for the hunt. He has followed his master who kneels among the flowers in his sumptuous black robes, fur-lined, his red cloak over his shoulders. Here is a citizen of status, for all his youth dressed expensively, and able to afford a painting by the best artist around. Almost certainly his wealth sprang from weaving, where the Low Countries were making surpassed thick cloths from our British sheep, to meet the new demands of the onset of two hundred years of a colder climate. His cartouche probably voiced a prayer. There is no pendant kneeling figure of a wife, no obedient little children. He could be a bachelor, but I want to suggest to you that, for all his youth, he is already a widower, that he had married a lovely young girl only a year before, and she had died in childbirth. Some of my reasons for putting forward this tragedy, only too frequent in his time, will emerge as we go on, but one of them he wears. It is a single ring, on the first joint of his praying hand. Instead of altering rings, it was common practice to wear them on whatever joint they fitted. This was clearly a lady's ring. In his sorrow he has turned to his faith, and the particular spiritual movement of his time would have spoken vividly to his condition. Flanders in the early fifteenth century was the cradle of Devotio Moderna, a loose confederation of the devout laity, cultivating an intensely personal piety that, though it paid every respect to the clergy, was independent of their guidance. There were many mystics among their adherents, and their spiritual classic was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, From a Kempis or his Brethren, our friend would hear:
'Learned arguments do not make a man holy or righteous, whereas a good life makes him dear to God.. ...You are only pursuing an empty phantom if you strive for riches that cannot last, .. .if you canvass for honours and acquire distinction; if you obey your natural appetites and desire things that will bring you punishment later, if you hope for a long life and care little for a good life... .A humble ignorant man who serves God is better than a proud scholar who observes the movements of the heavens and never gives a thought to his soul... A really great man has great love...'
The Brethren set store on the inner contemplative life, pursued in a quiet place, which, in their day, was very seldom a church:
'A man who intends to reach the inner castle of the spirit must, with Jesus, withdraw from the crowd... No one can go safely among men, but the man who loves solitude... No one can safely speak, but the man who loves silence...'
Keep in your secret place and enjoy the presence of your God...
Why has our friend chosen to set before the eyes of his soul not the Crucifíxion itself, but the Entombment? That moment at its most poignant. It was additionally believed that the Trinity had not revealed the inevitability of the Passion to the Angels: that they were caught unawares. So two desolate angels, bearing the Crown of thorns and the nails, fly across the eternal sky. Two more, carrying the sponge and the spear, weep either side of the group gathered around the etiolated, pathetic body of the Dead Christ. Veronica holds up her veil, from which the imprint of the Holy Face has been lost, with that defensive gesture we sometimes observe in beggars, holding up a bit of cardboard with an appeal in broken English upon it, as if such a talisman would protect them from the ruin that has come upon them. A distraught St. John holds the Virgin to prevent her from collapsing as she leans over to give her son a last kiss. Joseph of Arimathea, whose wealth is displayed in his exotic silks, and also in the paunch they cover, and the less flamboyant Nicodemus, lower the body. In the foreground, in the row in front of us, so to speak, kneel two of the Maries. The lady in red is about to fold the shroud over Christ’s body as it is lowered into the stone tomb. To the right kneels the Magdalen with her ointment pot. Her exquisite hand hovers over Christ’s foot, not quite touching him. Only a few days before she had washed that foot with her tears, and dried it with her hair. And in two more days her hand will again hover over his foot, and not quite touch it. But that moment of a happiness unimaginable in this valley of the Tomb belongs to the third chapter, and we have not yet discovered why our friend chose this subject. Medieval altars were of stone, and looked very like the tomb into which Christ’s body is being laid in this picture. In fact a literal identification of the body of Christ with the Eucharist, the Corpus Christi, was encouraged, and in many guises represented. It is one of the more excusable changes of the Reformation that stone altars were dismembered, and wooden tables, deliberately shifting focus to the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, took their place. In some Anglican churches since the 19th century a stone altar has been reinstated. But in the fifteenth century the placing ofChrist’s body in an altar tomb referred very particularly to the Eucharist. Followers of the Devotio Moderna were encouraged in a practice, rare at the time among the laity, not only of frequent attendance at the Mass, but frequent Communion. Thomas a Kempis again:
'Men go running to various places to see the relics of the saints... they gaze in wonder at the great churches built over them. They feast their eyes on holy bones, wrapped up in silk and gold.. - yet here before my eyes on the altar, you, my God, are present in yourself....'
Now we climb to the last panel, where our friend has commissioned, in place of a portrait of his wife, an image of the hope that remains to him. Here is a second hill, but this one watered not by human hands, but by rain from heaven for it sustains a crown of trees. This is the mount of the Ascension, and to its foothill has been moved, in sad procession, the coffin. Another little dog has followed that procession, again a cherished pet, never companion to a Roman soldier, but to our friend's dead wife. It has settled at last to a sad sleep upon the edge of the cloak of the foremost soldier.
Behind him a second soldier has started from sleep in disarray at the appearance of the Christ, stepping so lightly through the jaws of death back into our world. This slight, almost shy, elusive Christ has leapt like a dancer through all the laws of his own Creation, banner of triumph fluttering against the golden sky. His first act is a blessing over the bewildered soldier, and beyond. If you have folded your triptych you will now observe that this blessing falls athwart the central panel upon our kneeling friend, whose eyes are fixed, not only the redemptive tragedy of the central panel, but upon the figure of his risen Redeemer.
My interpretation of this wonderful painting, and what it meant to the man who commissioned it, can be summoned up in the prophecy of Hosea, Chapter 6:
Come, let us return unto the Lord, for he has torn us and he will heal us: he has smitten us and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us: in the third day he will rise us up, and we shall live in his sight. Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come as the rain, as the later and firmer rain upon the earth.